Breaking the Mold: Getting to Zero Plastic Waste

With the recent attention being paid to the issue of single-use plastics and pollution, the federal government has been turning its attention to their reduction and eventual banning. Industry figures say that nearly 80 percent of post-consumer plastics go to landfills, and it is estimated that by 2050, there could be more plastic in the ocean by weight than fish. At a Sixth Estate Spotlight event, host Catherine Clark led a discussion with stakeholders about the changing landscape when it comes to plastics.

Isabelle Des Chênes, executive vice-president of the Chemistry Industry Association of Canada, noted that the public has rightly been concerned about the issue, and pointed to this year’s G7 process that resulted in the Oceans Plastics Charter, as well as a recent unanimous vote in the House of Commons on plastic pollution in aquatic environments.

Des Chênes said that her organization conducted a survey of 1500 Canadians over the summer to gauge their perceptions on plastics, and nearly nine in ten Canadians feel that plastics are the worst possible materials for the environment.

“As manufacturers of plastic resin and plastics, we find this incredibly alarming, and it speaks to how much we have to educate the public as an industry, and to work with governments on that education to let people know about the benefits of plastics to society and to the environment,” said Des Chênes.

During the panel discussion, Christopher Hilkene, CEO of Pollution Probe, said that while much of the attention has been focused on ocean plastics, leading people to believe it’s a developing world issue, the concentration of microplastics found in parts of the Great Lakes is significantly higher than in oceans.

“We resist the temptation to turn a complex issue into a bumper sticker, so we reached out to NOVA Chemicals and the governments, other environmental groups and academics, and we started these forums about the problem,” says Hilkene. “There’s a lot of tools on the table — bans are one of them, but whatever you do, you have to have them properly constructed and framed to get them right.”

Hilkene says the solution is to create a “circular” economy that is large enough to have a market and value for post-consumer plastics so that they can be recycled indifferent ways.

Ken Faulkner, director of government relations for NOVA Chemicals, says that trying to make products like stand-up pouches recyclable, because they are layered plastics, is more difficult than it may seem.

“It sounds really simple, but it’s not,” says Faulkner. “It takes a lot of effort, it takes a lot of money. We have about 250 researchers in Northeast Calgary who work on issues like this on a daily basis, and it is something that is very difficult to crack as a solution, but that is one example of where we’re trying to make a contribution to ensure that our products are designed sustainably.”

Faulkner added that they are trying to also establish a “circular” economy in countries like Indonesia.

Ryan L’Abbe, vice-president of operations at GreenMantra Technologies, said that their catalyticde-polymerization technology breaks down plastics into smaller components that can be turned into things like asphalt roofing shingles and road materials in countries that don’t have access to their own fresh asphalt.

“We believe that we’re making a significant change in the world because we’re finding an end-use for plastics,” said L’Abbe. “You need to have demand for recycled plastics for the entire circular economy to survive, and we need to focus most of our time to creating that demand.”

L’Abbe added that the changes in China and shutting down the low-value plastic market will create a reckoning in North America’s recycling industry.

Sean Fraser, MP for Central Nova, NS, and Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Environment and Climate Change, said that the issue is one that has captured the attention of the public, which is why it’s become a non-partisan issue. He added that the value of an international agreement like the Oceans Plastics Charter is that it creates standards that other countries can get behind.

“It’s essential that we recognize that we can’t expect everyone else to behave the way we hope to if we don’t have our own house in order,” said Fraser. “The federal government has committed to reducing by 2030 its use of single-use plastics by75 percent. This is a signal to the rest of the world that if we’re going to demand behaviour of you, we’re going to do our best show you that we’re going to be with you every step of the way.”

Fraser said the government’s next step is to develop an action plan to create consistency across the country, and to help create a demand for post-consumer plastics, which will include public consultation.

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